Russia and Belarus will stage a joint military exercise, Union Shield 2011, on September 16 to September 22 with low-key participation by Ukraine. On August 22, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff took the unusual step of stressing that the exercise will be held “far from the borders” of NATO member countries. Stressing the defensive nature of Union Shield 2011, Makarov evidently wanted to reassure Alliance members in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States that there should be no cause for concern (Interfax, August 22).
Indeed, Makarov said the decision to stage the exercise in Russia rather than Belarus is intended as a signal to NATO, as well as demonstrating “transparency” and the “peace-loving” policy of the “Russia-Belarus Union.” No doubt this relates to the anxiety aroused after Zapad 2009 witnessed the Russian Air Force rehearsing a nuclear strike on Poland. Two years later, in the context of the continued, if shaky, US-Russian “reset” and an ongoing rapprochement between Moscow and Warsaw, the General Staff and their political masters in the Kremlin have adopted an apparently less controversial exercise scenario. “The program of the maneuvers was formulated by the General Staffs of Belarus and Russia together with the Staff of the Western Military District [MD]. It is of a purely defensive nature,” Makarov said, adding “It vividly demonstrates the aspiration of our countries’ leadership to take feasible measures to strengthen European security and to unilaterally restrict military activity near the borders of NATO and the Russia-Belarus Union” (Interfax, August 22).
By unilaterally restricting the location of the military exercise without necessarily expecting a quid pro quo Moscow hopes to downplay any western concerns raised by holding Union Shield. Breaking the recent pattern in its operational-strategic exercise of conducting these on an offensive-basis in the western region and defensive oriented ones in its eastern vector, Makarov also referred to this newly discovered benign approach to key combat training events. The chief of the General Staff placed Union Shield in the wider context of the Russian military cooperation agenda, involving “more than 40 combat training events” with foreign militaries in 2011. Most of these are with members of the CIS or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Referring to the CSTO exercise Tsentr 2011, Makarov said the theme is the “training and application of multi-service groups of forces to stabilize the situation and conduct military operations in the Central Asian strategic region.” Makarov will in fact oversee Tsentr 2011, suggesting that the priority is being placed on this rather than Union Shield 2011 (Interfax, August 26). Nonetheless, Union Shield 2011 will involve more than 12,000 servicemen (7,000 Russian, 5,000 Belarusian and around 100 Ukrainian), up to 50 combat aircraft and helicopters as well as 200 pieces of hardware, including 100 tanks.
In Krasnaya Zvezda, Natalya Yarmolik profiled briefings about the exercise by the Russian and Belarusian top brass. Makarov had linked the work of the joint regional group of forces over the past decade, in this case between Russia and Belarus, to developing the military component of the CSTO. Union Shield 2011 was planned over the past two years. It will be held at the Gorokhovetskiy and the Ashuluk training ranges under the direction of Major-General Pyotr Tikhonovskiy, the Belarusian Chief of the General Staff and Colonel-General Arkadiy Bakhin, the Commander of the Russian Western MD (Krasnaya Zvezda, http://www.redstar.ru/2011/08/31_08/1_01.html, August 31).
Turning to the conceptual joint work for the exercise, which involved the General Staffs in Moscow and Minsk and Western MD staff, Makarov highlighted one interesting novelty: the participation of an airmobile Ukrainian company. He seemed to imply that Union Shield might in future develop into a trilateral Russian-Belarusian-Ukrainian exercise. Makarov said: “We annually conduct the Farvater Mira (Fairway of Peace) naval training exercise with our Ukrainian partners. I think it is time to go to a new level of cooperation.” Moscow has proved unsuccessful in its efforts to persuade Ukraine to join the Customs Union (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia), but Makarov offered no justification for the timing of seeking to enhance military cooperation with Kyiv. In the preparatory phase of the exercise, troops will be regrouped to the two designated training ranges, while the focus will be on resolving issues related to air defense and using missile troops. The active phase will rehearse the defense of the “union state” from unspecified aggression, using air defense assets and the joint group of forces’ motorized rifle units (Krasnaya Zvezda, August 31).
General Tikhonovskiy, told a press conference in Minsk: “The goal is to show our brotherhood, our readiness to render fraternal aid if a situation calls for that.” He added that the exercise had also been shaped by events in North Africa and with reference to Afghanistan. “Command and control organs that do not learn from modern forms of military conflicts are doomed to failure,” he stressed. Tikhonovskiy stated that the Arab Spring had forced the exercise to focus on air defense: “That is why we are working out the use of a joint regional air defense system.” The Belarusian chief of the General staff said air defense assets would rehearse repelling air attacks and offering air cover to the Ground Forces. Moreover, he explained: “During the upcoming training exercise, components of the Ground Forces will operate with completely new methods. We plan to work out maneuverable defense problems together with air defense and engineering subunits” (Krasnaya Zvezda, August 31).
At an official level, locating Union Shield away from NATO borders is partly aimed at minimizing any political reaction abroad during or after the exercise. However, by building Arab Spring-linked events into the scenario it seems that the thinking on the part of the Russian and Belarusian General Staffs is being influenced by the need to crackdown on any potential “color revolution.”